Welcome to the Teacherless Activities for Low-Level Classes Series
With Rick Kappra
How I found Teacherless Activities
I started teaching ESOL as a volunteer in Philadelphia in 1983. I immediately fell in love with the profession and after teaching as a volunteer for 6 years, I went back to school to get a Master’s Degree. Then I spent another 6 years in Japan, teaching in a pre-academic program, where I learned how to teach all over again.
In 1995, I moved to San Francisco, with 12 years teaching experience and a Master’s Degree in TESOL under my belt. I got a job at City College of San Francisco where I was placed in a level 1 class. Suddenly, it was like all of my experience, training and expertise never existed. Nothing I had done had prepared me for that class.
The class itself was wonderful, and huge! There were approximately 40 students on the first day (in Japan we’d complain if our classes were over 18 students). And as days passed, more and more students came (and some disappeared). Ages ranged from 18-80. It was a mix of students from Mexico and Central America, Asia – mostly China and Vietnam with a few Koreans, the former Soviet Republics, a Moroccan, a Romanian student, and a very interesting guy from Haiti/Cuba (it was never really clear where he was from, it seemed he had roots in both countries). Students represented a whole range of abilities and educational backgrounds from those with little or no formal education, to those with advanced degrees. They presented the full range of learning styles and preferences, as well as physical and mental abilities – some very bright, some a little slower, some limited by age or lack of formal education. I found myself looking for ways that I could have my students do so many of the communicative activities that I had become accustomed to doing, and which, through so much trial and error I was even able to do successfully in Japan. But the old tricks of the trade that had become part of my repertoire just wouldn’t work and I found myself standing in front of the class having students repeat after me for lack of anything better to do. I knew that this wouldn’t work for me 2 hours a day, 5 days a week for an entire semester, even though many of the students probably would have been happy with that routine. The textbook I was using, which had been chosen by another instructor for the class, didn’t help much. I’d look and see a two page spread with a little vocabulary and perhaps a short conversation and nothing else. I didn’t know what I could do to get the students engaged in meaningful practice with such limited material.
I began my search for activities I could use with this population. I knew that they needed repetition, but wasn’t sure how to make it work. I also found that they needed everything from the basics, even the alphabet, word attack skills, colors and days of the week. They were really beginners! Each time I found an activity that worked, I tried to make it work again with a different language focus. I started to assemble a bank of activities that I found were successful in achieving my goals of getting students to engage with one another in some form of meaningful practice that saved me from having to stand in front of the class and repeat words hundreds of times.
Fortunately, as a new instructor at City College, I was given many opportunities to continue to refine my skills. I was given a string of level 1 classes since there were few other people who wanted to teach them. Because I had low seniority, I got what was left after everyone else had gotten their first choices. As my activity bank grew, so did my confidence, to the point where I now love teaching beginning level classes and have a collection of activities that I find not only get students engaged and talking with one another but make my job so much easier and more enjoyable. I started calling them teacherless activities and have presented them at various conferences, but I’d like to share them with those I have not yet been able to convert to the teacherless classroom. I hope that many teachers (and students) will be saved from endless repetition drills, or an overworked, underpaid teacher running around the class trying to give each student individual attention while the others wait patiently (and quietly) for their turns.
What are the conditions for successful learning?
This is not just about me wanting to find a way to make my job easier, though I must say as a part-timer teaching up to 32 hours per week at 3 different locations, and now as a full-time teacher with 25 contact hours per week, my survival depends on finding ways to take some of the pressure off of me in the classroom. Still, I would say that teacherless activities are grounded in some basic principles of language learning that we subscribe to in our field. Negotiation of meaning, comprehensible input, meaningful communication, a comfortable and supportive learning environment, and opportunities for practice and repetition, are among some of the things that I feel are pre-requisites for language acquisition to take place in a classroom learning environment. I do not believe that repetition drills or even simple substitution drills are effective in helping students to acquire an additional language (though they might give the impression that students are engaged and speaking the language).
An entirely teacherless approach is not the best way to go either, but I feel that a successful classroom is one in which the teacher uses a variety of techniques, and structures the class from presentation and controlled practice to ever more free forms of communication that allow students to manipulate the target forms and engage in meaningful, negotiated communication. After many years of trial and error, I’d say that this is possible even at the lowest levels of language proficiency.
What defines a teacherless activity?
For me an activity is teacherless if the teacher can walk out of the classroom and the students continue their interaction without noticing the absence of their teacher. An even more complete definition would be an activity that encourages students to look to one another as sources of information, knowledge and an opportunity to practice the target language. With teacherless activities, the role of the teacher changes from being a presenter (as in lecturing in front of the classroom) to being an active participant modeling and doing the activities with students. The teacher is no longer the only expert in the class, no longer the only source of input and practice. The role of the teacher becomes one who models the target language and then facilitates real communication.
Teacherless activities go against the impulse that we as teachers have, to present ourselves as the focus of attention, the source of knowledge, the one who is in control. I’m continually amazed when observing colleagues, working with student teachers, or just walking by classrooms and overhearing what is going on, that there are so many teachers straining their voices for hours at a time, or running around their overcrowded classrooms trying to give each student their 30 seconds of individualized attention and practice. Teacherless activities allow teachers time to pull back and observe what is going on in their class. During an activity, I often sit and smile at my students as I see them becoming more and more empowered as learners and as peer teachers. I walk around and monitor what is going on, often getting pulled into the activity by students directing questions to me. I help out when my help it needed, conscious of the power I have to interrupt the flow of communication between students. My options during an activity are varied, I can identify students who need more one-on-one attention and even sit down with a small group of students and give them some personalized attention, or I can simply observe.
For me the biggest drawback of using teacherless activities is that often my classroom is so noisy and chaotic. Sometimes it’s hard to get students to stop an activity.
Want to learn more about some of my favorite teacherless activities? Subscribe to the ALTA English newsletter to receive my blog updates, and follow-me as I share my favorite activity types with easy-to-use instructions, tips and suggestions that will surely provide you with lots of creative and fun ideas to jazz-up your low-level classes. You can also leave us comments or questions below.
Rick Kappra has been teaching English as a Second language since 1983, beginning as a volunteer working with refugees in Philadelphia. He has taught in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea. Currently he is an ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco, where he is also the Civic Center Campus ESL Coordinator. His goal as an instructor is to create more opportunities for students to engage with one another in fun, meaningful exchanges. Finding that most ESL textbooks did not provide enough opportunities for interaction led him to co-author Out and About with Amy Hemmert. Rick and Amy also co-authored Out and About Photocopiable Resources for Teachers – one of ALTA’s best-selling resources for beginning ESL classes.
Images: www.stockfreeimages.com and Rick Kappra. Text edited by ALTA English.